The Cardinal Virtues: A Source of Inspiration for the New Year
Heaven can never be reached because we are flawed, yet virtues can help us live less flawed each day.
“Virtue is a wealth, and all other good things that a man can have come from virtue.” — Socrates
This is one of last blog posts for 2021. I don’t think I wrote as much as I could have, but it’s been a busy year! How many of us truly get to do all the things we set out to do?
And that’s the point of this reflection.
Every day of our lives, we are faced with choices. Without always realizing it, everything you do is a choice – even the “autopilot” things like getting up in the morning, brushing your teeth (hopefully), driving to work, shifting lanes, yelling at the idiot who cut you off, hitting the elevator button, and so on.
It really became a game changer when I realized this. I once wrote in a journal passage to myself:
You are always making decisions. It is best to be present for them.
So, this brings me back to the business of life! Of course, there is so much to do and only so much time in which to do it. Tempus fugit. How do we decide what makes sense and when?
I previously wrote about how our own personal mission, vision, and values help lead us through a hard life.
But what was the basis for deciding what I valued? How did I come up with my own mission, vision, and values? What is the foundation of value?
I argue it is virtue – behavior showing high moral standards. In the ancient world this was areté, or “moral excellence!” It is expressing oneself in the highest standards at all times so one can close the gap between what we are capable of and what we are actually doing. In modern terms, it is being the best version of yourself!
Especially important are the Cardinal Virtues. First identified by Plato in his Republic, the Cardinal virtues are Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation. All other virtues stem from these four. Later adopted by major philosophical schools like Stoicism, and heavily influencing major world religions like Christianity and Islam, the Cardinal Virtues are the foundation of all decisions worth making.
I think the Virtues are needed today more than ever in our splintered world. Humanity can be so much better. And we are better! We just need more of us to step up and remind one another why that is – look past the falseness of invisible walls and hyperbolic platitudes. Our behavior should be influenced by our better angels. The Virtues can be the angels sitting on our shoulder reminding us of what is good, what is worth supporting, how to treat our fellow humanity.
When we fall short, and we will, we mustn’t condemn. Remember that Heaven can never be reached because we are flawed, but we should give spaciousness to be flawed yet resilient in trying to be less flawed every day.
The Cardinal virtues, also, have particular application to our professional lives. The Cardinal Virtues can help guide HR professionals (and any professional!) towards clarity and strength and confidence.
Let’s dig a little deeper. The four virtues explained are:
1. Wisdom, which is the ability to discern the appropriate course of action to be taken in a given situation at the appropriate time.
Wisdom is a form of enlightenment. It is taking what you learn and putting it to good use because what good is learning if you keep it to yourself like a desiccated scholar. The Daily Stoic writes: Wisdom is harnessing what the philosophy teaches then wielding it in the real world. As Seneca put it, “Works not words.”
HR Implication: Walk the walk. Don’t talk the talk. Don’t discuss how well you treat employees. Prove it by building a benefits package that showcases your values. Don’t discuss how much you invest in employees. Build a learning and development program that proves you want leaders for today. Take every opportunity to put into use all you learn that which is good. Kindness, empathy, good will, opportunity – all these things can stem from wisdom. Open the mind to let it out into the world for others.
2. Justice, which is fairness, righteousness.
Marcus Aurelius wrote that justice was the most important virtue. Cicero, who wasn’t a Stoic as the Emperor was, also believed this. Both believed in the phrase summum bonum, or “the highest good.” What is good for the whole is good for the part. This is strongly connected to the idea of sympatheia – the belief that we are all connected to one another and woven together through a mutual interdependence (sometimes not quite seen). The idea of “cosmopolitan” is a Stoic idea – we are citizens of the world. Therefore, we must act in the highest possible way to ensure we arrive at a just and righteous manner for the benefit of all. Suffering anywhere is a threat to wellbeing everywhere. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
HR Implication: Don’t let that “anywhere” be you. What good is being wise if a you crafted a compensation program that results in women receiving less for doing the same work? What good is creating a magnificent talent acquisition program if you are not attracting and hiring Black job seekers? Everything done in our space MUST result in justice, or else it is a threat to everyone. Those who “benefit” from unjust systems do not in the end benefit. Whether one believes in karma, or an DOJ investigation, eventually, all get outed.
3. Courage, which is the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.
Almost all fights require the ability to act despite fear, but true courage goes above and beyond fighting fear out of self-interest. Is it courageous to fight for a cause if you make personal gain? Maybe. Or, is it more courageous to fight for a cause in which you will likely take a personal loss? As Ryan Holiday writes: Courage to face misfortune. Courage to face death. Courage to risk yourself for the sake of your fellow man. Courage to hold to your principles, even when others get away with or are rewarded for disregarding theirs. Courage to speak your mind and insist on truth.
HR Implication: There is a lot of courageous work that HR practitioners can do and should do every day. Investigate the “whispers” of a high performing department that may be allowing bullying. Looking into the data to see if the organization is paying equitably, and bringing the data forth if it proves the organization isn’t. Standing up for a Black female colleague, who keeps being talked over by a male counterpart. These things are not easy, and doing them may lead to some negative results for you. If that’s the case, remember, that is true courage at the end of the day. Your courage gives someone else a chance. Because if not you and not now then who and when?
4. Moderation, which is the practice of self-control.
Ryan Holiday has a beautifully poetic way to describe moderation. Moderation is the knowledge that abundance comes from having what is essential. I love this. Knowing when enough is enough is hard to do sometimes. Just one more drink even though I need to drive home. Just one more piece of pizza despite needing to unbuckle the belt to breath. Just one more hour of work despite my son’s soccer game. Just one more project to add to the portfolio even though the team’s bandwidth is shrinking. When is enough enough? Is it truly necessary to add more to an already bloated system? One should always ask “Do I need this?” If the answer is yes, then ask “why?” The answer should be aligned with being essential.
HR Implication: Aristotle once discussed a “golden mean.” This is how I like to view moderation – it is balance. Too much of a good thing is excess, but not enough is deficiency. So, too, must we moderate our professional lives in certain ways. Too much emotion leads to a toxic situation. Not enough emotion leads to detachment and disillusionment. Too much oversight leads to alienation and micromanagement. Not enough leads to anarchy and lost production. Finding the “golden mean” is difficult but necessary. Learn to be water and you’ll learn to be exactly what is needed when it is needed. That is balance.
Take each one of the Cardinal Virtues at a single time, and we have a solid individual attribute. Taken all at once, and we begin to enter the world of the philosopher king or queen.
Ultimately, all the Cardinal Virtues are linked. It’s rare to have one without the another. They form a sense of unity. Through justice, I can behave moderately. Through wisdom, I can behave with courage. Through courage, I can behave with justice. At the end of the day, it’s about doing the right thing.
As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself (and us), “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored.”
It all begins and ends with virtue. Make the choice you know to be right. Have a happy new year! Much success and virtue coming your way!